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Deepwater spill survey: Still waters run deep

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Deepwater, Texas A&M, oilEditor’s Note: A team of researchers led by John Kessler, Texas A&M College of Geosciences chief scientist and assistant oceanography professor, has traveled to the Deepwater Horizon disaster area to study the methane leaking into the Gulf of Mexico (along with tens thousands of barrels of crude oil) daily at the site of the damaged Macondo 252 well. Kessler, along with David Valentine (a professor of marine sediment geochemistry, biogeochemistry and geomicrobiology at the University of California, Santa Barbara) and the rest of his colleagues are hoping to come away with a rough estimate of the spill’s size by the time his team returns home on June 20, followed by more accurate estimates as they complete their analysis of the information collected. Other objectives of the expedition onboard the RV Cape Hatteras include trying to determine how the methane might be removed from the water (whether eaten by waterborne microorganisms or released into the atmosphere) and how methane concentrations will change over time. The following dispatch is Kessler’s second and the team’s fourth blog post overall for Scientific American.



Friday, June 18, 2010

Often times, the most interesting people, places, and things are the ones that on the surface seem bland. But in only the right circumstances with the right people, do these individuals and instances reveal the true complexity of their characters. Finding ourselves in these beautiful situations reminds us how lucky we are to be in such situations of pure truth.

Disregarding the oily surface for now, the natural gas component of this spill is rather uninteresting in the surface waters. Concentrations are near background and at the most a factor of two high. However, the true complexity of this system is revealed down deep. Below approximately 1,000 meters, the concentration of natural gas and methane in the ocean waters jumps by a factor of one million. That’s right, one million. The ramifications of this are the topics of our current studies. The oxygen depletion due to this methane is variable, with some sites displaying 20 percent to 30 percent reductions in oxygen and some having oxygen contents that are seemingly uninfluenced. Our measured rates of methane oxidation by microbiology seem low, but more measurements and calibrations are necessary to confirm this perplexing finding. Each new analysis of this deep water signal reveals a new layer of information that was previously hidden. While this environment is an oily mess, the hidden complexity of the natural gas and methane issue can only be described as beautiful.



Image of Texas A&M graduate student Lei Hu sampling water in front of the Enterprise drill and containment ship, courtesy of John Kessler.





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  1. 1. spocknard 7:08 pm 06/18/2010

    I am continually bothered by the use of the term "spill" for this eruption, this massive spewing of oil! A spill is a single, self-limited displacement of something, like wine onto a tablecloth. The word "spill" tends to trivialize the monumental scope of this industrial disaster.

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  2. 2. dennisreader 12:36 pm 06/19/2010

    Those in charge (? If you can find them?) are thinking to small. A giant funnel, small end up, big enough to cover the the whole brake site and contact the ocean bottom, wieghted to stay inplace against the pressure of the oil discharge, with pipe (s) connected or connections to the sufface, and maybe even a SHUT OFF VALVE ? I don’t believe the second or third well will decrease the oil coming out of this open hole much at all. I do believe now that someone for some reason wants to distroy 1/8 of the USA’s coast line, and make us look inaffectual to the world.

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  3. 3. dennisreader 12:50 pm 06/19/2010

    Those incharge (?If you can find them?) are thinking to small. A giant funnel small end up, placed over the intire brake site, to contact the ocean floor, wieghted against the oil discharge pressure, with pipe (s) connection (s) to the surface and maybe even a SHUT OFF VALVE once it is in place ? I believe that the relief wells (1 or 2 or even more) will NOT stop the oil from coming out of the open hole. I DO believe that someone, for some reason, does want to distroy 1/8 of the USA’s coastline and make the USA look inaffectual to the world.

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  4. 4. Thornton Ellis 2:06 pm 06/19/2010

    Yes, I too find it more than a little annoying that everyone continues to refer to this unconscionable disaster as a spill. By definition, a spill is: To cause or allow to run, flow, or fall out. Run, flow, and fall are all words associated with the action of GRAVITY on objects or liquids. To my visual knowledge, the oil and other elements escaping from this well are spewing, gushing, bursting, spurting UP, not spilling DOWN.

    I also find it very puzzling that there appears to be no one who knows even an approximate amount of oil, etc. which this well may contain. Since deepwater drilling rigs cost approximately $420,000 a day, the DRILLING of a deepwater well can easily cost $100 MILLION OR MORE JUST FOR THE RIG. Drilling these days does not commence until there have been 3-D seismic surveys, and computer modeling of the (hopeful) oil reservoir by geologists, reservoir engineers, and geophysicists to estimate the reserves, and appraisal wells which determine where water meets sand (for Deepwater Horizon this is approximately 5,000 feet). THEN, the actual well itself must be drilled into the underlying rock, maybe twice or three times that deep, or more. Add in the personnel, the ships, etc. and you are looking at another sizeable chunk of change to not know even APPROXIMATELY how much oil is PROBABLY at the end? Not likely.

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  5. 5. domirudi 8:26 am 06/21/2010

    dont think who is responsible is the main ,problem.
    i think the main problem is willingness for money that not has a limit.
    After this problem will be another big problem by big love for money.
    the human spirit is dying.

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  6. 6. mike cook 9:59 am 06/21/2010

    The reality is that Macondo252 is a really great well. Very few wells in the world produce 50,000 barrels a day and all of them are in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.

    The relief wells will inject concrete to stop MC252 from uselessly spewing oil, then they will start draining the formation themselves at an immense profit.

    All this is good. We need more oil, desperately, in order to cease buying truly "foreign" oil. Our economy needs this oil. If the Obama off-shore drilling embargo causes the price of gasoline to soar to over $5 per gallon by November, our poor economy will be devastated and will never recover enough to produce good jobs.

    Eventually "clean" alternative technology will replace fossil fuels, but for the time being we have 250 million vehicles on the road that require about 1.6 gallons of fuel a day, on average. Many of these vehicles are not even paid for yet and they can’t be modified to run well on anything else.

    Maybe in a generation or two the alternative energies will truly be ready and then they will replace gasoline on their own merits. Oh, and by the way, I do not believe that the tail pipe of my truck is changing the world climate and I am not as stupid a person as some mean bloggers say that I am.

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